In a quiet Crystal City hotel conference room, dozens of survivors of fallen soldiers — parents, wives, siblings, fiancees — poured their sorrow, their anger and their hearts onto 10-by-15-inch paper rectangles.
Deep splashes of red and black paint. Bold magazine headlines. Photos that reminded them of a life, and a loss.
“This is a cliff I feel I could jump off at any time,” said a woman whose son died in August, pointing to an image in a collage. “And this is my broken heart.”
For the 1,300 — including more than 470 children — who attended the National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp this weekend, there were plenty of group discussions. Every session was led by a former survivor who spoke about dealing with grief and financial and legal issues. There were day-long activities for the kids, including five “therapy dogs” ready to receive hugs and attention.
But for those who tried art therapy as a way of processing the death of their loved one, the emotions rushed out. They entered a room filled with magazines, paints, markers, scissors and paper, not sure where they would end up in 90 minutes.
“I started to get angry,” said one man, explaining his politically oriented collage.
“My son died in 2006,” one woman told the group. “It’s been very hard for me to talk about. This has been very cathartic.”
The 17th annual national seminar, organized by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, was emotionally charged in every corner of the Crystal Gateway Marriott. One area was filled with infants and toddlers whose fathers did not return from Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.
Every area had bigger children racing through, each chased by an individual mentor. The mentors, all in active service, volunteered to spend their Memorial Day weekend with a child while the surviving parent attended seminars, bonded with other survivors or just took deep breaths and tried to relax.
At 8 a.m., dozens of Rolling Thunder motorcyclists rolled up and parked out front, and children poured out to try on chaps and rev Harley-Davidson engines.
“I’ve never been able to do this on a bike before,” said Noah Smith, 9, of Davenport, Iowa. “This is just awesome.”
Bob O’Leary, a biker from Newark, Ohio, said it was his fourth year of pulling into the survivor seminar for a morning, and 15th in Rolling Thunder. “We’ve got no power, but we’ve got love and compassion,” O’Leary said of his fellow bikers. “We need to show that.”
Bonnie Carroll, who founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors in 1994 after her husband died in a military plane crash, said the first national seminar had five attendees. Now, it seemed to fill a large hotel. Regional meetings are held around the country throughout the year, and many grieving survivors become volunteer leaders.
“When you can connect with another person who understands what you’re going through,” Carroll said, “that’s the only real therapy for grief.”
Alicia Buehring of Charleston, S.C., said her sons were 9 and 12 when their father, Lt. Col. Charles Buehring, died seven years ago. Through the survivor program, she said, “they made friends who they will keep for life. They stay in touch, and they can share an experience they can’t share with anybody else.”
Heather and David Cooper of Wahpeton, N.D., lost 19-year-old son Keenan in Afghanistan in July, but they still have children ages 3, 6, 14 and 17 to help through their own ways of mourning. They said the seminars provided “pretty excellent” guidance for their family, and the weekend “allows you to clear your mind,” Heather Cooper said.
Sharon Strouse and Julia Andersen counseled survivors through four art therapy sessions. “This is where you can pour yourself out,” Strouse said. “The paper becomes a safe container for grief.”
Shirley Schmunk of Richland, Wash., said, “I didn’t know what I was in for.” She made a collage that captured aspects of her son, Jeremiah, who died in Iraq in 2004. “I’ve gone to different workshops, and listened and listened and listened. I wanted to explore something else, and everything just kind of fell into place.”
Erin Jacobson of Billings, Mont., tried art therapy at last year’s gathering. “I stopped going to the seminars. I just stayed here,” she said. “Did a lot of crying. Did watercolors of [fiancee] Jason [Kessler].”
She began working in a camp for children to see if art therapy was her calling. It is, and she is exploring a career in the field.
“There’s all this stuff that needs to come out in you,” Jacobson said, “and I feel like this does that. This program, coming here, solidified that that’s what I want to do with my life.”